* MINOR SPOILERS *
Mel Gibson, at this very moment, may be standing in front of a mirror with a puppet in his hand desperately trying to make the concept of The Beaver work. Mel Gibson. Mad Max. In front of a mirror. With a puppet. Trying to make it work. Now that, my friends, is the first and perhaps only humorous thought to be had in relation to The Beaver. Gibson has, as you have probably heard, signed on to star in this film with Jodie Foster directing (who will also play his wife).
I thought now might be the time for a script review, MM style.
What-oh-what is one to think about Kyle Killen’s Beaver?
The script, which rose above all others on The Black List, is available here. Parallels between Walter Black, the main character, and Mel Gibson, the flawed human being, can be found here.
New York Magazine called it “one of the more elegantly fucked-up stories we've read in a long, long time.” Billy Mernit commented, “As a story analyst who's been reading for the studios (and indies) for 17 years, I'll just cite one reason the script clicked with readers: energy.” Our good friend, Scotty Myers, praised the script for its killer opening: “Just over 1 page -- and I guarantee you that any professional script reader would not only be engaged by the script, but also know this crucial fact: ‘I am in the hands of a quality writer.’” He also praised the script for its transitions - “…Killen effectively employs different narrative devices to stitch together scenes in a seamless fashion.”
ScriptShadow, who also offers a fairly comprehensive overview of the story, wrote: “It's not the best script I read on The Black List, but it's definitely the most memorable. And I think there's a lesson here. 9 out of 10 writers would've explored this concept as a broad comedy. The fact that we're essentially watching a drama about a guy who talks through a British beaver puppet distinguishes this script from every other script out there.”
And then there were Bill Martel’s thoughtful comments: “…here’s the thing - a movie and a screenplay can be saved by their ending... and as a story continues, we tend to become invested in the characters... so by the time I reached the end of THE BEAVER I wasn’t thinking about all of the problems as much as I was thinking about all of the things it did well... and that end (which oddly uses the narration I disliked from the beginning) had me liking the script despite its flaws. The narration in the opening is a set up for the narration at the ending... so it ended up being kinda cool. And the characters grew on me. A great heartwarming end made all of the problems seem to disappear. I can see why it got a bunch of votes - but still can’t see how it will work on screen without some heavy rewrites.”
All well and good.
I'd like to do something different and start with the ending (only minor spoilers). Did anyone notice how the (what some called “satisfactory”) ending was not the resolution of the main plot but, in fact, the subplot of Porter and Norah? And all the while we are watching the final images of this particular resolution between Porter and Norah play out, we hear The Beaver talk in voice over about… Walter Black.
That’s a bit strange, don’t you think?
It’s not only the final images of Porter and Norah that I’m referring to but also the sequence leading up to those final images, which were also filled with massive voice over by Porter in what would have been a certain speech he would have made. If you felt good about the ending, you felt good because of Porter’s story, not Walter’s.
It’s telling to me that the writer should lean so heavily on the subplot to end a story on a high note as opposed to the main plot.
Why is this?
I would suggest that this is the heart of the problem with The Beaver, that is, Walter Black and his puppet show is too thin of a concept for a feature film. He is at best a secondary character whose existence can only help to exacerbate the feelings of what should be the main character, in this case, Porter Black. This is really Porter’s story, as evidenced by the ending. There isn’t enough substance to Walter’s story to have a satisfactory resolution, and I’ll tell you why:
1) He’s not really a sympathetic character. Some might assume that because the story opens with his depression and suicide attempts that he’s automatically sympathetic, but that’s a con. We do not feel sympathy just because the movie opens with a character who is depressed. We feel sympathy in the act of watching how he addresses this issue, how he interacts with other characters, and how he pursues his goal of inner peace. What does Walter Black do? He creates this psychological crutch of interacting with the world through a puppet (just as Killen uses the Beaver as a crutch to explain everything through voice overs). It’s all too strange to support and too tragic to want to laugh. It’s the kind of situation that, if you are going to laugh, it’ll be at the expense of Walter Black, which you don’t really want to do because you just saw how suicidal he is. There’s a fine line between comedy and tragedy, which Killen has not yet mastered, because this script dips too heavily into the tragic. My emotions as I read the script ranged from uncomfortable to very uncomfortable. I never once laughed. The puppet concept is just a one-joke affair rooted in the reactions of the people who encounter this Beaver-talking phenomenon, and that gets old quick. You need to have more to offer to make this worthwhile. If this was a case where the Beaver gave him the freedom to say whatever the hell he wanted to say to people, things that never get said, a la Liar Liar or Lester Burnham from American Beauty, you might have some opportunities for humor. As it is, this script is a curiously absurd concept taken to its most absurd heights, which audiences would be willing to embrace IF it was funny. But no laughs are to be found here. Any marketing campaign proclaiming this to be “a comedy” would be guilty of false advertising.
2) There was an absence of conflict and tension in Walter’s story. Once he makes his conversion to deal with the world through a puppet, everything goes right for him. Thus, we have no conflict, no drama, and no tension. A wife who at first kicked him out and said the only words left to say, “goodbye,” reluctantly accepts his change. (If you buy that plotline, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.) His son, Henry, immediately (and most conveniently) embraces wood working to spend time with the Beaver. (If you buy that plotline, too, I’ve also got an island to sell you.) Yes, one could argue that people would keep on reading because things shouldn’t be going right and they’ll wonder how this will go wrong. But there weren’t even hints that problems were on the horizon for Walter. Things keep going right for him until he becomes a national star, which is so absurd. Absurdity on this scale should be in a comedy or satire and this is neither. The biggest gaffe for me was the total lack of conflict at Walter’s toy company. We have a once-great organization spiraling downward due to Walter’s ineptitude as CEO, and in the real world, when the boss fails and becomes vulnerable, the vultures start circling, and the ambitious make moves to take him out. They would be even more determined if the crazy boss returned to work to talk to the entire company through a puppet and promised eight months of severance pay to anyone who isn’t satisfied in two weeks with all the organizational changes the puppet wants to make. Yes, that’s eight months of severance pay from a company teetering on bankruptcy. Bridge, anyone?
3) Another problem for me is the way Walter’s story reaches its climax. “And then one day,” says the narrating Beaver, “Walter starts to tire of himself all over again.” He merely falls into his pattern of depression and over-sleeping only because the script called for it, not because something happened in the story to make Walter fall back into that old pattern of behavior. This should have come out through the drama and conflict that was so lacking in Walter’s story. Perhaps he gets fired from the toy company, and he falls back into depression. That would make more sense to me. We were also denied an emotional payoff to his problems with Meredith.
MM’S BIGGEST COMPLAINT
Check out these page numbers from my notes: pg 26, pg 31-32, pg 37-39, pg 51, pg 70-71, pg 75, pg 83-84, and pg 100-106.
What do all of these pages have in common? RIDICULOUS HEAPING BLOCKS OF DIALOGUE. Did you see the big paragraphs I wrote for points 1) and 2) above? See all those words in a single paragraph? That’s what the mountainous blocks of dialogue look like in the script. It’s one thing to speed read the dialogue, but it’s quite another to experience those huge monologues in a film. I’m not sure if anyone else noticed, but Killen manipulated the margins of the dialogue so that it’s as wide as acceptable (3.5 inches, although some writers stick with the preferred 3 inches) and then he squeezed the lines together so that the tops of some letters are touching the bottoms of other letters, such as the bottom of a “y” touching the top of an “h.”
“So what,” you say. Letters in a script should not touch each other, and margins should not be manipulated. If you find that you’re having to manipulate margins to make the dialogue look smaller, the problem is you, not the format. You see, one page of a script should equal one minute of screen-time. Lines that have been squeezed together give a wrong impression about how long a scene will play out. Thus, the huge blocks of dialogue in Killen’s script will take longer to endure on screen than what is presented on the page.
And that puts a whole new light on the huge blocks of (mostly expositional) dialogue when you think about how much it’s going to test the patience of audiences enduring those long speeches.
Consider the Beaver’s monologue on page 84 as he’s talking to Matt Lauer. I’ll bet you that speech, if it’s not edited down, will take up a minute and half or longer than the nearly one whole page it fills up in the script. This is the endlessly… talking… Beaver… puppet.
There’s a reason Miss Piggy never gave big speeches.
A FEW OTHER RANDOM THOUGHTS
- Jared was a wasted character. What’s the point of having a character that’s only going to be in one scene? Why couldn’t that scene have been about Porter and Hector?
- Did anyone buy that this cheerleader is also a brilliant valedictorian while also being a brilliant artist? I guess if you buy into the absurdity of Walter’s ascent into stardom with his puppet then you’re also inclined to buy into all of the other minor absurdities in the script like the bankrupt company offering eight months of severance or the cheerleader who is also the brilliant intellectual and genius artist.
- All of the WE SEE’s and camera angles were nauseating. Particularly irrelevant were the CUT TO’s. You should never write a CUT TO. Readers always assume it’s a cut unless they’re told otherwise.
I dare say, there is not an actor alive who can make the role of Walter Black work in its current form. Not Jim Carrey. Not Steve Carell. And most certainly not Mel Gibson whose recent fall from grace makes this whole project feel even more uncomfortable, as if Mel had to do this because he himself may be depressed and feels that he must humiliate himself with a beaver puppet to pay for his sins.
It’s not just his shaky public image that makes this project such a risk. The financing has yet to be finalized, which will be around $20 million dollars. There’s no studio backing, which means they may have to go the indie route. If you’ve read the trades, this was the worst year ever at film festivals in terms of getting sales and picking up distribution, because nobody will touch an indie film that’s hard to market. In this economy, if you can’t sell something as a straight horror or comedy or something that already has a built-in audience from a pre-existing source material, buyers will be reluctant. And The Beaver falls into that hard-to-market category because it’s not a comedy.
“Yeah, but it’s got Mel Gibson,” you say. Mel has had two other films that failed to pick-up distribution: The Million Dollar Hotel (even with a soundtrack by U2) and The Singing Detective. Those films were long before his now tarred and shaky public image.
Ya know, Peter Sellers might have made this concept work but not as it’s written in the script. A genius like Sellers would have to take this concept home, make it all his own, and bring his genius to every scene to make us laugh and care about the suicidal puppet man. He’s the only actor dead or alive who had a chance of pulling this off.
But even his film would’ve lost money.